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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
lifestyle, morality , philosophy

Hedonists claim that feelings of pleasure or happiness are the highest and final aim of conduct; that, consequently those actions which increase the sum of pleasure are thereby constituted right, and, conversely, what increases pain is wrong.



The name derives from the Greek word for "delight" hēdonē "pleasure", a cognate of English sweet + suffix -ισμός -ismos "ism").

Basic concepts

The basic idea behind hedonistic thought is that pleasure is the only thing that has intrinsic value. This is often used as a justification for evaluating actions in terms of how much pleasure and how little pain (i.e. suffering) they produce. In very simple terms, a hedonist strives to maximize this net pleasure (pleasure minus pain).

Classic schools of antiquity

Democritus seems to be the earliest philosopher on record to have categorically embraced a hedonistic philosophy; he called the supreme goal of life "contentment" or "cheerfulness", claiming that "joy and sorrow are the distinguishing mark of things beneficial and harmful" (DK 68 B 188).<ref>p. 125, C.C.W. Taylor, "Democritus", in C. Rowe & M. Schofield (eds.), Greek and Roman Political Thought, Cambridge 2005.</ref>


Cārvāka was an Indian hedonist school of thought that arose approximately about 600 BCE, and died out in the 14th century CE. The Cārvākas maintained that the Hindu scriptures are false, that the priests are liars, and that there is no afterlife, and that pleasure should be the aim of living. Unlike other Indian schools of philosophy, the Cārvākas argued that there is nothing wrong with sensual indulgence. They held a naturalistic worldview.

The Cyrenaic school

The Cyrenaics were an ultra-hedonist Greek school of philosophy founded in the 4th century BC, supposedly by Aristippus of Cyrene, although many of the principles of the school are believed to have been formalized by his grandson of the same name, Aristippus the Younger. The school was so called after Cyrene, the birthplace of Aristippus. It was one of the earliest Socratic schools. The Cyrenaics taught that the only intrinsic good is pleasure, which meant not just the absence of pain, but positively enjoyable sensations. Of these, momentary pleasures, especially physical ones, are stronger than those of anticipation or memory. They did, however, recognize the value of social obligation, and that pleasure could be gained from altruism. The school died out within a century, and was replaced by the more sophisticated philosophy of Epicureanism.


Epicureanism is a system of philosophy based upon the teachings of Epicurus (c. 341–c. 270 BC), founded around 307 BC. Epicurus was an atomic materialist, following in the steps of Democritus. His materialism led him to a general attack on superstition and divine intervention. Following Aristippus—about whom very little is known—Epicurus believed that the greatest good was to seek modest pleasures in order to attain a state of tranquility and freedom from fear (ataraxia) as well as absence of bodily pain (aponia) through knowledge of the workings of the world and the limits of our desires. The combination of these two states is supposed to constitute happiness in its highest form. Although Epicureanism is a form of hedonism, insofar as it declares pleasure as the sole intrinsic good, its conception of absence of pain as the greatest pleasure and its advocacy of a simple life make it different from "hedonism" as it is commonly understood.

In the Epicurean view, the highest pleasure (tranquility and freedom from fear) was obtained by knowledge, friendship and living a virtuous and temperate life. He lauded the enjoyment of simple pleasures, by which he meant abstaining from bodily desires, such as sex and appetites, verging on asceticism. He argued that when eating, one should not eat too richly, for it could lead to dissatisfaction later, such as the grim realization that one could not afford such delicacies in the future. Likewise, sex could lead to increased lust and dissatisfaction with the sexual partner. Epicurus did not articulate a broad system of social ethics that has survived.

Epicureanism was originally a challenge to Platonism, though later it became the main opponent of Stoicism. Epicurus and his followers shunned politics. After the death of Epicurus, his school was headed by Hermarchus; later many Epicurean societies flourished in the Late Hellenistic era and during the Roman era (such as those in Antiochia, Alexandria, Rhodes and Ercolano). The poet Lucretius is its most known Roman proponent. By the end of the Roman Empire, having undergone Christian attack and repression, Epicureanism had all but died out, and would be resurrected in the 17th century by the atomist Pierre Gassendi, who adapted it to the Christian doctrine.

Some writings by Epicurus have survived. Some scholars consider the epic poem On the Nature of Things by Lucretius to present in one unified work the core arguments and theories of Epicureanism. Many of the papyrus scrolls unearthed at the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum are Epicurean texts. At least some are thought to have belonged to the Epicurean Philodemus.


Christian hedonism is a controversial Christian doctrine current in some evangelical circles, particularly those of the Reformed tradition. The term was coined by Reformed Baptist pastor John Piper in his 1986 book Desiring God. Christian Hedonism may anachronistically describe the theology of Jonathan Edwards. In the 17th century the atomist Pierre Gassendi, adapted Epicureanism to the Christian doctrine.




Mohism was a philosophical school of thought founded by Mozi in the 5th century BCE. It parallelled the utilitarianism later developed by English thinkers. As Confucianism became the preferred philosophy of later Chinese dynasties, Mohism and other non-Confucian philosophical schools of thought were supressed.

Modern utilitarianism

The nineteenth-century British philosophers John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham defended the ethical theory of utilitarianism, according to which we should perform whichever action maximizes the aggregate good. Conjoining hedonism, as a view as to what is good for people, to utilitarianism has the result that all action should be directed toward achieving the greatest total amount of happiness (Hedonic Calculus). Though consistent in their pursuit of happiness, Bentham and Mill’s versions of hedonism differ. There are two somewhat basic schools of thought on hedonism:

  • One school, grouped around Jeremy Bentham, defends a quantitative approach. Bentham believed that the value of a pleasure could be quantitatively understood. Essentially, he believed the value of pleasure to be its intensity multiplied by its duration - so it was not just the number of pleasures, but their intensity and how long they lasted that must be taken into account.
  • Other proponents, like John Stuart Mill, argue a qualitative approach. Mill believed that there can be different levels of pleasure - higher quality pleasure is better than lower quality pleasure. Mill also argues that simpler beings (he often refers to pigs) have an easier access to the simpler pleasures; since they do not see other aspects of life, they can simply indulge in their lower pleasures. The more elaborate beings tend to spend more thought on other matters and hence lessen the time for simple pleasure. It is therefore more difficult for them to indulge in such "simple pleasures" in the same manner.

Critics of the quantitative approach assert that, generally, "pleasures" do not necessarily share common traits besides the fact that they can be seen as "pleasurable." Critics of the qualitative approach argue that whether one pleasure is higher than another depends on factors other than how pleasurable it is. For example, some people may see the pleasure of satanism as a more base pleasure because it is morally unpalatable to them, and not because it is lacking in pleasure.


Hedonism can be conjoined with psychological egoism - the theory that humans are motivated only by their self interest - to make psychological hedonism: a purely descriptive claim which states that agents naturally seek pleasure. Hedonism can also be combined with ethical egoism - the claim that individuals should seek their own good - to make ethical hedonism the claim that we should act so as to produce our own pleasure.

However, hedonism is not necessarily related to egoism. The utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill is sometimes classified as a type of hedonism, as it judges the morality of actions by their consequent contributions to the greater good and happiness of all. This is altruistic hedonism. Whereas some hedonistic doctrines propose doing whatever makes an individual happiest (over the long run), Mill promotes actions which make everyone happy. Compare individualism and collectivism.

It is true that Epicurus recommends for us to pursue our own pleasure, but he never suggests we should live a selfish life which impedes others from getting to that same objective.

Some of Sigmund Freud's theories of human motivation have been called psychological hedonismTemplate:Citation needed; his "life instinct" is essentially the observation that people will pursue pleasure. However, he introduces extra complexities with various other mechanisms, such as the "death instinct". The death instinct, Thanatos, can be equated to the desire for silence and peace, for calm and darkness, which causes them another form of happiness. It is also a death instinct, thus it can also be the desire for death. Psychoanalysis has developed greatly since Freud but his ideas remain influential and contentious.

Contemporary approaches

A modern proponent of hedonism with an ethical touch is the Swedish philosopher Torbjörn Tännsjö<.

Michel Onfray

A dedicated contemporary hedonist philosopher and on the history of hedonistic thought is the French Michel Onfray. He defines hedonism "as an introspective attitude to life based on taking pleasure yourself and pleasuring others, without harming yourself or anyone else. "Onfray's philosophical project is to define an ethical hedonism, a joyous utilitarianism, and a generalized aesthetic of sensual materialism that explores how to use the brain's and the body's capacities to their fullest extent -- while restoring philosophy to a useful role in art, politics, and everyday life and decisions."


One modern group that is hedonistic is the Abolitionist Society. They are also a part of the transhumanistic movement. They propose that all suffering should be abolished, and the prospects for happiness be increased, through biotechnology at a major scale.


Hedonism has been criticized by a number of modern philosophers.

Robert Nozick argued that we do not only want the pleasure from our activities, but actually want to do them for their own sake as well.

G.E. Moore argued that hedonists commit the naturalistic fallacy.

Related concepts

basic instinct - bread and circuses - carnivalesque - dance - decadent - Dionysian - egoism - eroticism - escapism - narcissism - pleasure


pain - reason

See also

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